FAUST: MAN, MYTH, OR LEGEND?

 

            The central theme of the Faust legend – a man selling his soul to the Devil – is known to most people.  Faust as a symbol of the human condition, of human emancipation and revolt against manfs limitations, is also a familiar figure.  But who knows about the genesis of this tale?  Who is aware of the facts which transformed yet another 16th C. itinerant astrologer and a work which was, basically, Protestant propaganda, into the most potent and enduring myth of the Western World in the second half of our millennium?

            The very fact that Faust has become such a powerful myth suggests that we know extremely little about the actual man, and this is indeed the case.  He may have been born in Kneitlingen c.1480.  He may have died c. 1540.  He could have been expelled from several cities for unseemly conduct involving children.  He wandered a great deal, and he may have fled a great deal as well.  We do, however, know that he was a man of his time – an expansive, revolutionary age which witnessed several peasantsf revolts, the exploration and exploitation of new worlds, and the Reformation.  And he certainly made an impression on his contemporaries.

            After his death, oral tradition idealised him, while written tradition characterised him as the Devilfs associate.  For, unlike the clerics and the intellectuals, he was a man of the people; and this earned him the hatred of the Catholic and the loathing of the Protestant Churches.  Anecdotes of his magical tricks were first written down in the late 1560s; then, in 1587, appeared the Historia von D. Johann Fausten.  In this work, Faust sells his soul to the Devil for 24 years of gratification; his ambition is to strive after knowledge for knowledgefs sake and wallow in sensual pleasures.  His pact, as a means of fulfilling his desire, is the fruit, not the root, of his sin.

            The Lutheran Church was the official State Church by this time.  It regarded the stories which had brairded over Faustfs grave as a threat, because of the magnetic appeal they exercised on the populace; and so it decided to turn this appeal to their own advantage by blackening Faustfs name.  In a way, they were killing two birds with one stone, by traducing Faust and issuing a warning about the sinfulness of magic and knowledge at the same time.  Faustfs great popularity, and his reputation as a magician, made him the perfect instrument; but little did the Lutheran Church imagine that they would be consigning him to a glorious immortality.

            So in what ways is the Historia von D. Johann Fausten a Protestant work?  First of all, it was printed in Frankfurt, a strongly Lutheran city, by Johannes Spies, a prominent printer of Lutheran religious books; and the action largely occurs in Wittenberg and Erfurt, the home of Lutheranism.

            This eHistoryf is a didactic tale, for the Reformation was strongly suspicious of the prose narrative – especially prose fiction.  This age gave rise to the Teufelsbuch genre, which was particularly prevalent from c. 1550 to the 1580s.  Tales which had originally been humorous, concentrating on the cardinal sin of folly, and depicting the Devil as a comic trickster who could be outwitted by even a simple peasant, now assumed a darker tone as they shifted their focus to the threat of Hell and eternal damnation.  The Historia von D. Johann Fausten owes much to this genre, but also marks a significant departure from it; whereas the earlier tales concentrated on the event, the actual pact itself, this history centres around the character who makes the pact.  This emphasis is of vital importance for the further development of the legend.  The Devil as comic trickster is still apparent in Fausten – Faust believes that he has been shown Hell, when the visit was merely an illusion – but there are also elements of the Lutheran Devil in the echaracterf of Mephistopheles, who resembles the Satan of tradition in many respects with the significant difference that he uses the Papacy to achieve his ends.  The Pope is described as the Antichrist; allusion is made to the Catholic Charles Vfs interest in black magic; Mephistopheles first appears in the garb of a Franciscan Monk; and so on.

            Yet the most important example of the Protestant nature of this work – indeed, the central theme – concerns Faust and the issue of Salvation.  Although he has made a pact with the Devil, he will not be damned if he can only have faith; if he trusts in Godfs mercy and believes that he can be forgiven, he will be saved.  Repentance and good deeds are to no avail if he does not truly believe.  He does not have to pray, and he does not need anyone – neither priest, saint, Jesus nor the Virgin Mary – to intercede with God on his behalf.  Everything depends on him.

            But Faust does not repent; he is afraid of Satanic punishment.  Therefore he is denying Godfs omnipotence; he does not believe that God would be able or willing to protect him; he has no faith.  Therefore he must and will be punished.  Finally, after giving a group of students in an inn an admonitory address (donft do what I did, etc.), his term of gratification expires, Mephistopheles arrives, and Faust meets what the author regards as a well-deserved end; his brains are discovered smattered around the walls of his room and his body is found outside on a dung-heap.  Nor is there any doubt as to the destination of his soul; Hell and the Devil were tangible realities to 16th C. man.  Even as great a thinker as Luther believed in the personification and the physical manifestation of evil.

            Stylistically, the Historia von D. Johann Fausten is very raw and in nowise to be considered a work of art.  It gives the impression of various episodes being cobbled together, and large sections are copied word for word from various sources, as was the common usage at that time.  Halfway through the text, the narrative stream ceases its rough flow and a number of anecdotes about Faust playing tricks on peasants is inserted.  These are parodies of similar episodes which appeared in mediaeval lives of saints; the incidents are told in the same style, yet the miracles Faust is performing do not have the noble and godly aim of healing the sick.  For those who have not read the work, the following analogy may be of use: imagine that you are watching a modern film of this story, with sound and colour, when suddenly and abruptly the colour fades into grainy black-and-white, the sound is replaced by jaunty, crackly piano-music in the background, and the characters begin to move in a rapid, jerky and exaggerated manner.  After some five minutes or so, the film returns to normal.  Marlowe included this section in his wonderful play, a decision which has come under heavy criticism over the years; but although this group of anecdotes seem dated, and appear to reduce Faust to the status of Elizabethan clown, we must remember its parodic purpose.

            There is also the fault – at least what we nowadays would regard as a fault – of didacticism.  Mephistopheles is a cardboard creation who, when asked questions whose answers lie beyond human knowledge, gives conventional responses which Faust could easily have found by legitimate means.  And can you really imagine the Devil telling a man, in all seriousness, to follow and honour God?

            Nor did the narrator check his facts like the modern article-writer.  He states that Geneva had a bishop, and this was certainly true in 1493, the date of his source.  However, anyone to whom mention of the name Calvin will ring a faint bell will know that this certainly was not the case in 1587.

            Yet is must be said that, despite the faults of Fausten, this is an immensely powerful work.  It may be as jerky in its movements as a cheap puppet, but it contains the same potential for horror, the same ability to fascinate and make a lasting impression.  Once it was stripped of the regressive Lutheranism, which regarded scientific investigation and its results as being necessarily opposed to theology and therefore to God, it presented great possibilities for improvement – and Marlowe was intelligent enough to realise its potential.  By emphasising Faustfs quest for knowledge, he gave the tale its future direction; by contrast, later German versions of the history (in 1599 and 1674) placed more stress on Faustfs loose living than on his curiosity.  Here was the perfect character for the playwright whose great hero-villains are encapsulated in the line: gThat like I best that flies beyond my reach.h

            And Marlowe not only recognised the greatness in Faustfs character: he duly realised it, most notably in his opening and final soliloquies.  The author of the Historia had sown the seeds of greatness by providing Faust with a temporal background, through the invention of his childhood and academic career in a cursory concession to realism.  Yet it was Marlowe, in his The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus of 1588, who first evoked compassion for Faustfs fate; although he sent the eponymous hero to Hell, this is no merely didactic work; how can we not admire and empathise with a character who delivers such magnificent speeches?  Moreover, the play is a tragedy.  Faust is no longer a warning, an example; he has become a representative, an individual searching for his relation to his Creator and the rest of creation, an individual in isolation whose evil hurts only himself.

            The chain of development leads from Marlowe to Goethe (Faust Part I, 1808; Part II, 1832).  Indeed, the importance of Marlowefs great play cannot be stressed too strongly, for the original Historiafs popularity lasted only for about a decade; thereafter, the story was relegated to the status of puppet-play in Germany.  Goethefs version, the greatest, although not the definitive (to use this term of any rendering would be to misunderstand the nature of the legend) gives us further evidence of the sheer flexibility and adaptability of the Faust material.  It concentrates less on damnation – for Faust cannot be damned; as long as he strives, he is saved, and as long as he lives he must strive, for it is in his nature to do so – than on manfs relationship with the world around him.  It is worth mentioning that the first author to save Faust was Weidmann in 1775, but Goethefs Faust was no mere product of the Enlightenment, as has been claimed; the faith in manfs rational faculties, so central to this movement, is ridiculed in the character of Wagner, the narrow-minded pedant.  Faust is a modern, self-conscious, post-Christian man, embarking on a quest for happiness, for fulfilment, a quest he can never achieve, for the only happiness open to him is that provided by the act of questing.  He is not searching for knowledge, for his learning has encompassed all that a man of his time could know; it is practical experience of life that he desires.  Faust cannot overreach; he can only underperform.  Not only is his character developed to a rare complexity, but Mephistopheles is rendered much more convincing – and much more human.  He seems less like a Devil and more like a cynical companion who speaks many unwelcome home truths; for Goethe viewed evil not as the opposite of good, but as its other side.  It is now Mephistopheles who is doomed from the beginning; he may gain many small victories, but the ultimate victory shall belong to Faust – to man.  And by a bitter irony, the Devil himself will help Faust to attain that triumph.

            There is tragedy amidst the triumph, however.  It does not occur at the end, but takes place throughout, for striving is essentially tragic; it is in the nature of growth to cause pain.  And this poem is the drama of the evolution of the human soul; lacking the restrictions of unity, it represents growth in its form as well as its content.  It also represents the evolution of a human mind – Goethefs – over a lifetime.  This must be the most optimistic tragedy of all time; man may be limited, but how vast are those boundaries!  Human experience appears as narrow and repetitive only when observed from the perspective of the whole race; when viewed through the eyes of the individual, the spectrum is breathtaking in its range.

            The universal appeal of Faust is reflected in the number of versions of the theme by authors of different nationalities: Valéry in France, Lunacharsky in Russia, Byron in England (Manfred), and Ibsen in Norway (Peer Gynt).  But the fact remains that the Faust legend is essentially a German legend: hence Klinger (1791), Chamisso (1804), Lenau (1836), Heine (1847) and Mann (1949) have all essayed their personal interpretations.  He is probably the nearest equivalent to Robin Hood or King Arthur that Germany has.  And, personally speaking, I find his Germanness to be one of the most attractive aspects of the myth; for that reason I greatly enjoy Faust Part I and the Urfaust (even if they are little more than a love-story) but can only feel a cold, qualified admiration for Faust Part II.  I do not desire the fusion of the Northern and the Classical Worlds; I like them as they are.  They can occasionally be united with brilliant effect, as the magnificent poet Hölderlin proved; ironically, but not untypically, Goethe was incapable of recognising his genius.

            But to return to our eherof.  What legacy has he left to the 20th century?  He has given us the moral dilemma of the scientist, an issue at no time more relevant than the period after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The insistence of Goethefs Faust on action, on the need for each generation to develop inherited traditions is as relevant as ever – especially for those more conservative lands.  So is his turning away from the sun towards the rainbow – that is, ceasing to search for the divine light and contenting himself with regarding its reflection in nature.  And the prevailing theme of the freedom – and the loneliness – of the human mind is timeless.

            The relations to God and the Devil mean nothing in a largely irreligious age; it is entirely appropriate that this centuryfs great version of the legend, Thomas Mannfs Dr. Faustus, should treat culture as its central theme.  Indeed, the Faust legend is in the enviable – possibly unique – position of having been shaped by three great authors, in the languages of dramatic verse, poetry and prose.  For this, we have to thank the original author, who unwittingly left the framework for others to build on as they pleased.  By not having been defined at the outset, Faust is not limited; he retains the vagueness of a myth, that same vagueness which enables a figure like the Wild Man to develop from a bogey figure into the noble savage.  Faust is probably the most effective literary example of the isolated individual and the most powerful expression of the human condition with regard to man as an individual; whereas we cannot help thinking of Hamlet the Son or Lear the Father, Faust is on his own – a small man in an immeasurable, incomprehensible universe, apart from society, incompatible with his lover, searching for his Creator.  But he is also a giant: a symbol of the mythical potential of man.  He is as ambitious as Icarus, as restless as the Wandering Jew, as mysterious as the Holy Grail.  Blake claims, when writing on the Canterbury Pilgrims, that human nature does not change; anyone who has been introduced to the various metamorphoses of Faust, or who considers belief to be the major factor in formation of character, may doubt this.  Or are we discovering aspects of our nature which have always existed but had never previously been evident?  I do not think so.  Hamlet and Don Quixote are for all time; Faust is for any time.

            What of the Fausts of our age?  There are numerous trite, eminently forgetful adaptations, focusing on petty, materialistic concerns.  This legend has covered the greatest themes of all – man in relation to his world and the universe, salvation, the priorities of life – and awaits the pen of another great author to install fresh life into it, if anyone should be brave, wise or foolhardy enough to pick up the strings and play God to this extraordinary puppet.  What direction can it now take?  Will someone turn from the mythical towards the actual historical figure?